COVID will halt 230,000 more human service connections in Greater Kalamazoo this year, survey finds

Leaders of 88 area nonprofits were surveyed. Many say demand for services is up by 50 percent. 
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough on stores, restaurants, and businesses that need customer traffic to make money. But what about nonprofit organizations whose “customers” are people in need of help?

“During the COVID-19 shutdown a lot of nonprofit agencies that do really good work all but lost their primary means of providing services -- face-to-face contact with people,” says Luke Kujacznski, executive director of Urban Alliance Inc. in Kalamazoo. “And that occurred at a time when people needed it most.”

About 230,000 individuals who would be served by a nonprofit in the Kalamazoo area will not be served during the second half of this year, says Kujacznski (pronounced Kwee-a-chin-ski). That includes those who need help with food, housing, medicine, mental health care, and child care needs, according to a new survey of more than seven dozen area nonprofit organizations. 

Luke KujacznskiThat is an estimate of the service opportunities (requests for help from people or outreach efforts to help people in need) that have been missed since the end of June and that will not be made through the end of December because of efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. Nearly as many were missed during the height of the pandemic shutdown, from March through June, according to the survey.

Explaining the numbers, Kujacznski says, for instance, the Urban Alliance’s skills training program is the primary contact some individuals have with nonprofit services. “ But we’re connecting them to other nonprofits in town to help get their needs met,” he says. “So it’s not unusual that someone receiving help from Urban Alliance also receives help from Loaves & Fishes, the Kalamazoo Gospel Mission, Ministry With Community, and you can just go down the list.” COVID has made all those connections more difficult. 

Leaders of 88 area nonprofit organizations were surveyed in June and July to learn how they are being impacted by the coronavirus outbreak and to formulate an estimate of how they will fare through the second half of this year. The survey was commissioned by Hub One, a collaboration of four area agencies that are looking for innovative and more effective ways to reduce intergenerational poverty. By working together, they hope to amplify the positive impact of the services and support they provide to individuals and families. 

“Hub One wants to build a better way for nonprofits to work together so the community benefits from the increased collaboration,”  Kujacznski says.

The Hub One agencies are Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan, Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo, Prevention Works Inc., and Urban Alliance. Their initiative is being funded through a three-year, $8.3 million grant from the Stryker-Johnston Foundation. 

“We are an alternative for kids that have a lapse in time where they’re not doing anything or where their time is unstructured,” says Matt Lynn, CEO of the Girls & Boys Club of Greater Kalamazoo.Prevention Works is a 15-year-old nonprofit that develops research-based educational programs to encourage young people and others to live healthier lives. Its programs address such things as substance abuse prevention, pregnancy prevention and violence prevention. 

Urban Alliance, which has extensive community outreach services, works to help people improve their lives and move towards self-sufficiency and self-empowerment through educational initiatives that provide employability skills training, job placement assistance, and other services. The organization got its start here in 1999 and became a nonprofit organization in 2006.

According to the survey:

Most organizations reported an up to 50 percent increase in demand for services. Those included:

• Increased demand for basic essential items, including basic support for food, housing, and for infant/elder care items.

• An increase in mental health pressures and stressors among clients was reported.

• Increased demand for organizations that serve the Latinx and LGBTQ+ communities.

Young people and seniors were two vulnerable populations that more organizations started serving during the pandemic, according to the survey. But while demand for services increased or remained at previous levels, the capacity to serve shrank due to stay-at-home requirements, building shut-downs, school closures, fewer people allowed in buildings, staff working remotely, and other general health concerns, according to the survey.

Supporting young minds

Kujacznski says people should not overlook the many nonprofits involved in the arts and education.

“Supercritical needs -- people understand that,” he says, referring to such things as food and shelter. But he says organizations that provide art and educational experiences “have a tough time justifying -- in this present moment – that they need funding because maybe all their services are offline. It doesn’t mean that we can just let them die because there are going to be times in the near future when they are more needed and we’re going to want them there.”

Two girls wear masks while playing games at the Boys & Girls Club.He cites the learning and child care programs at New Genesis as an example of good work that is being done but was not considered essential when the COVID-19 shutdown started.

Pastor Ervin Armstrong says of operational funds at New Genesis, “Right now, because of COVID, our numbers are down compared to last year.” New Genesis is located at 1225 W. Paterson St. on Kalamazoo’s Northside. 

“We’ve purchased sanitizing machines, added additional maintenance staff, installed new flooring (that is easier to clean), and followed the CDC/COVID guidelines,” he says. 

His staff is also limiting access to the building, expanding classrooms, taking people’s temperatures, and wearing masks in order to make the building a safe and secure place. 

All of the changes have been implemented since programming resumed in July. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the close of all non-life essential businesses in mid-March and New Genesis temporarily closed its programs from March through June.

An instructor helps in early elementary student with an online class in New Genesis Academic Hub.The New Genesis Success Academy, the center’s program for kindergarten through fifth-graders, has typically operated after school and during the summer. In October, New Genesis Academic Hub opened to provide support oversight and a location for students to complete their school district-approved virtual learning curricula. The hub operates from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

With grant funding, New Genesis was able to let families attend the hub at no cost. That was tied to initial plans by Kalamazoo Public Schools to move from online-only learning during the first trimester of the school year, to partial in-school learning during the second.

“Well, KPS announced students would remain virtual for the next trimester,” Armstrong says. That added to our budget (expenditures) because we originally budgeted to have students part-time because the second trimester was a hybrid. Providing a full day hub for the second trimester will increase our budget by about 50 percent.”
New Genesis is working to raise about $25,000 to support its program through the second trimester of the school year.
“We’re open to receiving donations or grants to offset the cost of operating the hub,” Armstrong says. And while that is the big challenge facing his nonprofit organization now, he says, COVID-19 itself is an ongoing problem.
“The biggest challenge I’ve seen is that you don’t know when it’s going to shut things down again,” Armstrong says.
Assistant Executive Director Anquanette Wilbon says that because of parent hesitation to send children back to school, the number of students at New Genesis is down from a total of 100 before COVID to about 65 presently. 

“While the closure in March led to lay-offs, we were able to hire additional staff for the academic hub,” Wilbon says. The business employs 24 people, down by only one position from pre-COVID days.”
“Although we’re operating at about a 40 percent capacity of children enrolled, … our staff is the same because of the (K-5th hub students,” she says. “We found the students needed more assistance with virtual learning so the ratio is 1 to 3 students rather than 1 to 10 as we originally thought.”

The stress of delivering service

According to the survey results, “Most impacted by the decrease in service delivery were organizations that serve people with disabilities and veterans, as well as organizations that work with Asian and Black communities.”

Respondents said they were concerned for clients who have issues that may have been exacerbated by the stay-at-home orders, including the elderly, those who have an increased need for mental health services, and youngsters, “who face a widening gap of educational outcomes” due to the situation, according to the survey.

Of the organizations who responded to the survey, 64 percent said they moved their service delivery to a virtual platform; 90 percent said they planned to continue virtual programming to complement face-to-face service as that returns; and 63 percent said they discovered that virtual programming reaches an additional audience they could not reach previously.

Sixty-six percent of the respondents cited the cancellation of programs as a major barrier to their ability to provide service. Most identified the technological limitations of their clients as the biggest barrier that was exposed by the pandemic.

Leaders of nonprofit organizations reported an increase in the stress levels and burnout levels of their staff members since the pandemic started, with health-related organizations most severely affected. Of the leaders’ major areas of concern: 17 percent cited staff stress; 11 percent cited staff burnout; and 15 percent cited protecting staff members from COVID-19.

Organizations said they are most in need of financial support, staffing, and technology. Sixty-three percent of the responding organizational leaders said additional financial support will be their greatest need over the next six months. They say they’re struggling with staff layoffs, a drop in the number of volunteers, and losses of revenue, some due to canceled programming and canceled fund-raising events. At the same time, they are struggling with increases in costs associated with new technology, support for their virtual programming, and buying more personal protection equipment.

In-person replaced by innovation

“It definitely caused us to reimagine and rethink how we are able to deliver programming and services, as well as continue to keep all of our employees employed and maintain operations,” Matt Lynn says of providing services during the pandemic.

The chief executive officer of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kalamazoo says, “Really, through the heart of the shutdown time period, from April through June, we shifted gears. Instead of being able to provide on-site services, we went to what we call our virtual club experience where we actually provided either recorded programming or did live recording via ZOOM. That gave opportunities for our members to engage daily with us during a set time where we were able to offer certain kinds of our services and our program experience.”

The club’s administration offices at 915 Lake St. were reopened on June 22. Its main location there was reopened for youth activities on July 6. Its center for young people inside the location at Douglass Community Association at 1000 W. Paterson St. was reopened on Aug. 31. And it is preparing to reopen its center inside Northeastern Elementary School at 2433 Gertrude St. on Nov. 30.

The club’s staff found ways to do such things as have members fill out forms online and provide parents with online tours of the facilities. “It caused us to be innovative,” Lynn says.

The club offered virtual programming during the shutdown and has continued it. With social distancing and other rules in place to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, Lynn says the number of youngsters the organization can accommodate in-person is down. Before COVID-19, its three locations typically saw about 150 young people per day, ages 5 to 19. 

The club was able to keep all of its 42 employees working, however.

“We shifted the way we actually were doing daily operations,” Lynn says. “Instead of people being on-site -- the majority of our staff members are site-based because of the one-to-one contact -- we transitioned and did daily trainings, webinars and policy coverages and things like that for the full duration of about five months. We committed early on to keeping everybody employed.”

During the shutdown, Lynn says he was most concerned about the personal safety of the young people who are the club’s members.

“This is a very significant time where there is a lot of stress that people are feeling by being quarantined,” he says. He says there are also reasons to worry about increased substance abuse, or “family dynamics that may go south.”

In some home environments, he says, “Some violence that may come with people feeling a little bit of cabin fever. Here, we know that kids are certainly safe while they’re at our location. Some of those stressors that may exist within the home environment are certainly not present here.”

He says virtual programming helped the club to maintain relationships with kids and families, “to check in on them, how they’re doing, how things are going.” Calls to families also allowed them to see whether they had other needs such as bill-paying assistance or food, he says.

Of the increases in shootings that happened over the summer, he says, “That was a big signal that we really need to be a place where kids can be every day, safe and not subject to being just out on the streets, kind of wandering under their own wiles.”

What happens now?

“We want to have conversations with the organizations, funders, and entities that can help rectify this so we can make sure that our vital institutions are able to continue,” Kujacznski says.

The goal of the survey was to help the community understand how nonprofits and the people they serve were impacted through COVID, he says. 

“Going forward the goal is to continue to make and help the community be aware of and support and be behind these community institutions that provide critical services to the most marginalized populations in our community,” Kujacznski says.

He adds, “The survey should demonstrate how needed the (nonprofit) sector is … and how vulnerable it is right now. So my goal and a big goal of Hub One is to lift up these nonprofits who are losing revenue, losing visibility (not being able to have events) and they are still out there serving populations they are tasked with serving -- to the best of their ability.”

More about Hub One

Can four Kalamazoo-area nonprofits working together improve services to those they assist?
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.